"This is your birthright — to be stoned and to game."
So says Stoned Gamer founder-CEO Zeus Tipado — who's perhaps the most enthused interviewee I've ever encountered. The 35-year-old Highland Park resident created the Stoned Gamer Championship Series — a roving tournament combining cannabis and esports/computer gaming — in 2016. Now he's promising a permanent Stoned Gamer Arena, which he describes as "the Disneyland of stoned gaming," scheduled to open in Los Angeles in April.
Tipado started Stoned Gamer as a website devoted to independent game development — "because that's just where all the art is" — in 2014, after selling his popular MMA site, Middle Easy. True to its name, Stoned Gamer entailed Tipado and his buddies getting high, playing "amazing games" and writing about them. But he'd long envisioned a real-world stoned video game tournament, so he organized what he calls "the planet's first" such event during the XO Gold Cup cannabis competition (which he co-produced) in San Bernardino in October 2015.
"We didn't know what we were doing. ... It was illegal, and we didn't care," he recalls.
Considering that millions of people have been enjoying faded gaming since Pong first flickered into arcades in the mid-'70s, it's remarkable that such a tournament didn't happen sooner. But when it did, its first iteration, as well as its second two months later, was, predictably, a huge hit.
"There was a giant hole in culture," explains Tipado, who holds a master's degree in media theory. "It's something that's kind of been, like, set aside or pushed away because, y'know, humanity is a little bit too embarrassed ... [to] accept that humans like to get high and we like to kind of escape."
Tipado simply took what's been going on in homes, dorm rooms and arcades for decades and formalized it. In 2016 (on, yes, 4/20), he launched the inaugural Stoned Gamer Tournament season, wherein players competed in qualifying tournaments around SoCal for the right to vie for opulent prizes in an end-of-year Grand Finale. This year, 16 qualifying events (including one in Las Vegas) culminated in a 64-player Grand Finale in downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 9.
"This huge, multibillion-dollar industry of esports, gaming and, of course, this trillion-dollar industry of cannabis that we're about to see in 2018 — why not be at that intersection of both industries?" Tipado says.
With partners and sponsors including video game streaming platform Twitch, Hong Kong cannabis comic-cum-accessories company Wizman and gaming chair makers Vertagear, Stoned Gamer's tournaments happen in warehouses, at cannabis events and even beneath an abandoned Highland Park church.
"We're kind of focused on getting that tech industry behind us, because we already have the entire cannabis industry behind us," Tipado says. "Now it's time to tackle tech; tackle gaming; tackle the CNNs, the L.A. Weeklys."
Stoned Gamer players register for free to compete in qualifying tournaments, online or in person. While Tipado says Stoned Gamer builds its own arcades that include "every game that's ever been invented," both Stoned Gamer seasons to date have been contested on chosen one-on-one fighting games: Marvel versus Capcom 2 in 2016 and Street Fighter II: Champion Edition this year.
"You see clouds of cannabis mixed in with, like, the faint glow of arcades and TVs and Xboxes ... people screaming and yelling," Tipado says of his events. "And you feel like you're at home ... like you're immediately accepted, like those are your people. And that's kind of the culture we're trying to create."
Photos provided by Stoned Gamer show mostly young male participants in its tournaments, which Tipado himself MCs. But he insists that its demographic embraces everyone from tattooed girls to well-to-do CEOs, and has included Parisian indie rockers, actors, hip-hop artists and hardcore Hong Kong gamers.
"It's a culture that's being created as we talk," Tipado says. "With every tournament that we have, we're seeing the culture kind of craft itself and instill itself into the mainstream."
This year's Stoned Gamer Grand Finale prizes included a trip to Phuket, Thailand; a pound of cannabis; a limited-edition Stoned Gamer Arcade; and a contract with sports management and marketing company First Round Management.
Although recreational marijuana use in California isn't legal yet, Tipado says that just one of his tournaments, in downtown's Arts District in June 2016, got busted — and that was for alcohol. "[Police] didn't care about the bongs or the weed!" he marvels. "Our players continued to play as the cops were, like, raiding the entire event. Our players were hyper-focused — didn't even break concentration!"
With California's Adult Use of Marijuana Act taking effect Jan. 1, Stoned Gamer is making a giant vault into the mainstream with its planned opening of a 30,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar Stoned Gamer Arena on, of course, 4/20/18. Tipado says he expects to close on a location soon, likely downtown.
The space will be divided into six themed areas, such as Sports (featuring games like FIFA Soccer and NBA 2K), Tokyo (with Japanese games such as Dance Dance Revolution played in what Tipado dubs "that cyber-punk, Tokyo, Japan, feel") and Insomnia ("rows and rows of PCs and PC gaming"). A Grand Arena with a huge projector and stadium seating will host major events, and there'll also be the stoner-requisite food court (Tipado says he's in talks with a major fast-food chain).
Although the city of Los Angeles just approved rules allowing state-licensed retailers to sell recreational marijuana, Tipado is treading carefully regarding cannabis sales at the Arena.
"We're working with cannabis counsel Manzuri Law to sort out the licensing requirements for 2018," he says. "The worst-case scenario is probably a 'bring your own bud' situation. We're taking it slow because we want to do it right and be 100 percent aboveboard."
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The Stoned Gamer Arena will be a subscription-based facility, open daily. For $30 a month, subscribers will receive a swipe card and an app that, as well as allowing admission, will let them accumulate points to attain different levels of play, tackle daily and weekly challenges, see their friends' points and track which games they're playing and for how long.
"Data collection is going to be a huge thing," Tipado says. "It isn't just about getting high and being at a place to play games — you're trying to be a part of this bigger picture."
Creating all of this in less than four months appears ambitious, but Tipado's infectious energy gives the impression that anything is possible. And he's not shooting small.
"[Stoned gaming] is going to be like any other spectator sport," he deadpans. "We're looking at NFL, UFC ... that's kind of what we're competing with."